One Square Inch of Silence: A Review of Sorts

I started reading the book One Square Inch of Silence, by Gordon Hempton about a month and a half ago, finishing it last night. The book tracks his travels across the United States from Washington State to Washington, DC. The book is well written in largely a conversational tone and is for the most part a pleasant read.

Hempton is obsessed with the concept of natural silence. He defines natural silence roughly as the periods between human made noise (such as leaf blowers, cars, trucks, trains, and planes). The book makes the case for the need to preserve natural silence as a national treasure. Hempton believes that there are no places left in the continental US east of the Mississippi river where natural silence exists. I tend to agree with him on this point.

There are hundreds of references to sound level measurements throughout the book. While these serve as good indications of how noisy a particular place compared to or contrasted with another place, they become irritating quickly. After the first few measurements of an airplane’s noise level the reader is sufficiently aware of how much noise pollution an airplane generates.

I live within 14 miles of BWI airport. Most days we are not in the direct approach path of the airport, but rather on the periphery of the approach. Most days there is a slight drone once in a while of an aircraft, but it does not intrude enough to affect my daily living.

On some days though (when the wind has shifted from its prevailing direction, or there are significant weather events happening) we find ourselves directly in the approach path. At times, the jets are so low that I feel I could wave to the pilots and passengers and they might see me do so. Those are some really loud days.

Hempton argues that most people feel that they find quiet easily because they are so inundated with noise in their daily routines. I’ve no doubt that he is right on this point, however, after reading the entire book, I’m left with a sense that Hempton is overly tuned in to noise. The book left me with a sense that he is hypersensitive to noise and thinks that everyone else should be too, but that we’ve all somehow lost our sense of hearing.

My sense of hearing is rather acute and I often hear things that others around me do not. With this perspective, I can understand where Hempton’s concern arises, however I’m not sure I can get behind the central treatise of the book which seems to be that we should as a society do everything in our power to minimize all noise generated by humans.

At the end of the day, I think this is a marvelous ideal, but would be completely impractical to implement.

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